Spending a year on a dairy farm in New Zealand was an opportunity not to be missed
Great place to live and work – with just one huge minus
Peter McCann: We have 800 cows, on 600 acres. Our day starts at 3.30am, to have the first cows milked by 4.30am
Growing up in north Derry, I never had a massive urge to move away or travel the world. I was happy on my father’s sheep farm. Agriculture was not just a job for him and my uncle, but a way of life for our whole family.
I had thought about going straight into working full time on the farm after finishing school, rather than paying the large tuition fees necessary to go to university. I thought if we could invest that money straight into the business, to buy more ground or new machinery, we’d be better off. But my parents insisted on investing in my education, and at the age of 17 I began a degree in agricultural technology in Queen’s University in Belfast.
I never thought then that I’d be sitting here in New Zealand, three years later. The opportunity to do my year-long work placement abroad was one I couldn’t pass up. If farming was to be my career, my early 20s was the time travel and try something different; I had the rest of life to be in the green hills of Derry.
After applying to farms in Canada and Australia last summer, I finally arranged a job on a dairy farm outside Invercargill at the very south of New Zealand. It couldn’t be further from home on the Earth’s surface.
I had been to England a few times and to the US on a community exchange when I was 14, but I’d never been abroad on my own before. Getting on the plane was one of the hardest things I have ever done in my life. My heart was broken in Dublin Airport. It was the day of Seamus Heaney’s funeral, and the coverage on the airport TV screens just added to my sombre mood.
I came here the cheapest way I could, which took three days. I was really nervous as the plane was readying to land. The woman beside me couldn’t get over the fact that I was only 20 and had come all that way on my own. She gave me her number in case it didn’t work out, and said she would help me to find another job or something. For a stranger, she was so kind.
The farm manager came to meet me at the airport and after a day’s rest I got straight to work. He’s from Co Cork, the other farm hand I work with is from Co Waterford, and the man who owns the farm is from Co Meath. He owns a few farms in the area. We are famous around here – people arrive at the farm and all they can hear is Irish accents.
There is a serious labour shortage in dairy farming in New Zealand. Even though I didn’t have any previous experience in dairy, my boss was happy enough to get anyone. The fact I was willing to come this far for 12 months was proof I was keen to work hard and he took the chance.
A lot of seasonal farm workers come here from Ireland and Scotland, particularly machine operators. There’s a lot of Irish in Invercargill generally, working in all sorts of jobs, like the girl I met in the motor tax office this week from Co Clare.